The actor Peter Cushing, who was born a century ago today, is remembered as a fixture of British horror movies, but for me it’s a role he played in a non-horror film – a swashbuckler set in the 18th century – that best sums up his unique persona. In 1962’s Captain Clegg, he plays a prim village vicar, given to gently chiding his congregation during church services when their hymn-singing isn’t as energetic as it should be. However, it transpires that being vicar is just a front for his real activities — for after dark he reveals himself as the titular Captain Clegg, a fearsome former pirate who now, ruthlessly, runs a smuggling operation that his parishioners are all part of.
In his private life, Cushing would have made a perfect village vicar. He spent his free time in the quiet town of Whitstable on the Kent coast and was a birdwatcher, model-maker and painter of watercolours (as well as being patron of the Vegetarian Society). Famed for his gentlemanliness, the critic John Brosnan remarked that in the 1970s you could go through the entire British film industry and find nobody with a bad word to find about him. Indeed, Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in 1976’s Star Wars, said the hardest part of her role was summoning the hatred that, onscreen, she had to show Cushing’s villainous, planet-destroying Governor Moff Tarkin — so charming was Cushing towards her off-screen.
Saintly though the real Cushing was, many of his film characters had definitely gone to the dark side. Several were cold-blooded and fanatical scientists who assumed that the ends justified the means, no matter how unspeakable the means might be — including Baron Frankenstein, whom he played in the series of horror films that Hammer Films based on Mary Shelley’s novel, very loosely, between the late 1950s and early 1970s; and in 1958’s The Flesh and the Fiends, Doctor Robert Knox, who was the real-life Edinburgh medical lecturer that Burke and Hare supplied with freshly-murdered corpses. Later in his life, as Cushing’s gaunt features grew even gaunter, he got increasingly cast as Nazis, of which Moff Tarkin was one variation.
Such was the strange dichotomy of Cushing the person and Cushing the movie villain that it’s a pity he never got around to playing Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (He did, though, appear as the lawyer Utterson in a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated horror story, 1970’s I, Monster, where the main role was taken by his very good friend and frequent co-star Christopher Lee.)
But he played good guys too – most notably Van Helsing in five of Hammer’s Dracula movies; and Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s 1958 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in a sixteen-episode BBC television series in the 1960s and finally in a television movie in the mid-1980s. His BBC performances as Holmes are much admired, although Cushing, a perfectionist, felt that the show’s hectic shooting schedule didn’t allow him to give the role his best. With uncharacteristic causticity, he told the actor Douglas Wilmer (who’d played Holmes in a previous series) that he’d “rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience again”.
He also played Winston Smith, the doomed hero of George Orwell’s 1984, in a television version in 1954, scripted by Nigel Kneale and performed live before the cameras as TV plays invariably were in those days. By then in his forties, Cushing was as thin, gaunt and haunted-looking as you’d expect a citizen in a cruelly totalitarian society to be, so he gave Smith a physical as well as emotional believability. (You can now watch the play in its entirety on youtube — though you’ll probably wince at the fact that it was posted there by the Glenn Beck Book List.)
Cushing’s popularity in 1950s British television prompted Hammer Films to hire him for the first of their colour-shot horror movies – The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Dracula in 1958 and The Mummy in 1959 – which began a long tradition of British horror filmmaking, still in existence today thanks to movies such as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. Cushing didn’t particularly like horror films but was philosophical about being typecast in them. If cinema audiences wanted to watch him in them, he thought, fair enough.
Conventional wisdom has it that Cushing saw his career flourish while British Gothic cinema itself flourished, in the late 1950s and during the 1960s. However, his career declined in the 1970s when British horror films, and British films generally, lost their popularity. I wouldn’t agree with this idea, however. Maybe it’s because his 1970s movies, which began to appear on TV when I was in my early teens, were the first Cushing movies I was exposed to and so they occupy a special place in my heart. Or maybe it’s because Cushing’s performances became even more intense and powerful after his wife Helen, whom he adored, died in 1971. Anyway, I feel it’s in those 1970s films that you get his best work.
In 1972’s Twins of Evil, for example, he plays Gustav Weil, the leader of a band of Nathaniel Hawthorne-style puritans who come into conflict with a vampire cult. Weil is so sanctimonious and zealous, obviously tormented by psychological demons as well as by the bloodsucking ones around him, that he tips over into villainy and the viewer’s sympathies end up more on the side of the vampires. Meanwhile, I remember being genuinely upset by the nihilism of the same year’s The Creeping Flesh. Cushing’s character here is a kindly archaeologist who digs up a skeleton that might just belong to a mythological creature called the Evil One — the devil, basically. Flesh reconstitutes itself on the skeleton and the Evil One comes back to life. The film ends with it stalking the world again while Cushing, whose warnings about the thing are dismissed by everyone as a madman’s ravings, is imprisoned in an asylum run by a villainous rival (played as usual by Christopher Lee — he and Cushing made 22 films together).
I wasn’t a big fan of the horror-anthology movies made by Hammer’s rival studio, Amicus, but in the midst of the stories in their schlocky 1972 compendium Tales from the Crypt, Cushing gives a performance that’s rather heart-rending. In Tales‘ third story, he plays a kindly, melancholy old widower, tormented by snobby neighbours who believe his presence is lowering their neighbourhood’s tone and lowering their property prices. They wage an escalating hate campaign against him, spreading lies and rumours that deprive him of everything he holds dear – including his pet dogs and the friendship of the local children – until he is driven to suicide. (This being a horror film, he doesn’t stay dead for long, of course.) The story is genuinely upsetting because Cushing’s acting conveys the tragic consequences of a real-life horror – the spitefulness that human beings are capable of.
To be fair, Cushing appeared in his share of duff movies, but his acting skills could make any film seem about 50% better in terms of quality than it actually was. A case in point is Freddie Francis’s ropey 1975 film, Legend of the Werewolf, where Cushing is a joy as an amiable Parisian pathologist who has to work out why so many cadavers are suddenly appearing on his slabs with fang-marks and claw-marks. He was also good in the barmy 1972 British-Spanish co-production Horror Express, which puts him and Christopher Lee together on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906. Cushing and Lee are on the same side for once and play their roles like bemused horror-movie versions of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in an old Road movie. Also on the train is a freshly dug-up, alien-possessed and reanimated prehistoric ape that has the power to suck its victims’ brains out through their eyeballs. “Is Professor Saxton’s fossil still at large?” inquires Cushing at one point with appropriate dryness.
With his appearance in Star Wars, Cushing entered the era of the modern cinematic blockbuster, but because of ill-health and because by the late 1970s the British film industry had come close to extinction, it was his last high-profile role. (It’s a pity that he turned down John Carpenter, who offered him the role of Doctor Loomis in the first Halloween movie. Carpenter wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Loomis and eventually recruited Cushing’s fellow old British horror guy, Donald Pleasance.)
Cushing spent his final years in his beloved Whitstable, where he became a local legend. Not only does the town have a pub named after him, but his residency there inspired local punk band the Jellybottys to write their most famous song, titled with admirable directness Peter Cushing Lives in Whitstable. And this year, to mark the centenary of his birth, horror writer Stephen Volk penned a novella called Whitstable, set in the town in 1971 during the months following Helen Cushing’s death. The novella sees a grieving Cushing approached by a youngster who, confusing him with the vampire-hunting Van Helsing he’s seen in horror films, begs him to protect him from his abusive stepfather, whom he believes is a vampire.
Many film actors of Cushing’s generation plied their trade in the staid, black-and-white British dramas, romances and comedies of the post-war period, aimed at domestic audiences, and they have faded from the public’s memory now. But Cushing bestrode a more dynamic strand of British film-making — the British Gothic, which presented its blood and grue in lush Technicolour red and which appealed to international as well as home audiences with its sensationalism and sensuality. As a result, he remains fondly remembered. At times icily villainous, at other times a font of avuncular charm, he’s as iconic as ever.